The Regents’ base was impressive. All the walls and floors seemed to be made of the same material that the hangar was. It made the place look unnaturally clean. There wasn’t a spot of dirt or scuff in sight. From what I could tell, the floor we were on was roughly circular, with the hangar extending out to one side.
We were walking around a gently curving hallway with doors on either side appearing every so often. I didn’t see any windows, though. Was that just a strategic decision, or was it because it was underground? The lack of visible, unaccounted for buildings in Chicago left some people to think the only place their based could be was below ground and out of sight.
Ghost peeled away from the group by stepping through a wall. It was an odd sight, but there were people who could do stranger things. Animus and Cypher led me to an elevator an up several floors to one that looked identical to the one we left, except for the concerned looking Argus liaison.
With everything going on over the past few days, I hadn’t even noticed when James didn’t check in like he usually did. “I guess I’m finally getting sanctioned, huh?” I said, trying to force a grin. James let out a short hollow laugh, “Didn’t think the circumstances would be like this.”
“They are what they are, so let’s not waste more time,” Cypher said over his shoulder. He and Animus had stopped a little way down the hall in front of a set of doors. I nodded and followed them through the doors and into a cavernous room lined with white panels. It was shaped like a hollowed-out cylinder, but like the hangar, the walls sloped to meet the floor and ceiling.
Vindicator stood in the middle of the room, arms folded, and feet planted. “Cypher has given me everything I need to make the sanctioning official, except for a full review of your powers,” James said. He’d given James all that already? From what I’d been told, Sanctioning took days of tests and evaluations. The longer I knew Cypher, the more I wondered if his power was just intelligence.
“What about the psych evals? I haven’t done one of those yet.”
“I’ve evaluated your mental state. You are stable enough to handle the strain.”
“How could you kn…”
“How could you kn…”
Cypher caught me completely off guard. He’d spoken perfectly in sync with me.
Trying to throw him off, I started spouting off babble: random numbers, names, nonsensical sounds. He matched me syllable for syllable.
“How are you…”
“How are you doing this?” He finished my thought.
“I’ve mapped your consciousness, observed your responses to stimuli enough that I can know what you are going to think and do before you do. In most cases, at least.”
“You’re joking,” I said, looking over at Animus and James. The Regent was cracking up and tried to hold back a grin. “Freaked me out too the first time he did it to me.”
“So, you don’t really need to give me a normal evaluation, do you?”
Cypher shook his head, “No. But, we do need to see you use your powers.”
“Right,” I said, taking a breath. “Is that what Vindicator is standing there for?”
Cypher nodded. “Don’t hold back.”
Don’t hold back? I didn’t think I could do that. After holding back, keeping that large a part of you locked up so tight for twenty years… But I have to, I reminded myself. Think about them. I won’t lose them. They won’t get hurt because of me.
Reaching inward, I found my power, that metaphorical valve, and opened it. The icy energy crept up from my palms, flowing over my clothes. It still felt alien, yet oddly familiar at the same time. Goosebumps rolled along my skin where I felt pricks of cold from where the energy made contact.
“If you’re ready, lets start with the basics: speed, and strength. Try to knock Vindicator over.”
I took a running start, using the trick I picked up during the meta warning, I rapidly gained speed. I only had a few steps until I reached him and then what? I knew I was a little stronger with the energy, but why? Was it the same reason I was faster: because I was controlling the energy mentally? It was worth a shot.
Three steps. Two steps. One more step, this was it. Calling on the two boxing classes Paul talked me into taking when I was ten, I took a batting stance and threw my punch. Guiding my energy, I felt it flow up from my legs first, then around my hips as I rotated, before shooting up my back and down the length of my arm as my fist struck the hero. Which had absolutely no effect? Like jello, the energy rippled back up my arm and threw me off balance. Punching Vindicator felt like hitting steel and rubber at the same time, but the hero was just grinning.
“Not bad, but you need practice,” he rumbled. His voice was gravely, but not overtly harsh or hostile. “Your stance is a little off. Set your feet a little further apart to make sure you’re anchored.” I nodded and took his advice. I didn’t really realize just how large a man he was until I was right next to him. He had to be just an inch or two shy of seven feet tall, and he was built like a football player on top of that.
“Again,” He ordered, relaxing his arms at his sides. I hauled back and unloaded another punch, willing the energy to move with me. Something was different this time. My arm went from a deep sapphire to almost blue-white, and when it hit, I didn’t feel any of the recoil I felt before.
Vindicator slid back ever so slightly, his boots losing traction on the smooth floor. “Good job, kid, that’s how you do it!” He rumbled. The sudden volume of his voice startled me, but I couldn’t help but grin when I saw the wide smile on his face.
“Impressive,” Cypher said, walking over from the sidelines, clapping slowly. “Now that we know how strong you are, lets move on to your speed.”
Move on? I’d hardly gotten started, “Wait, what do you mean? I’ve only thrown two punches.”
“By knowing Vindicator’s density and how far you moved him, I can calculate how much force you generated with your punch and use that to estimate your strength in other endeavors. I could break the math down for you, but I don’t think you’d be that interested. Would you?”
Cypher may have been a good hero, but was he always an asshole? Everything he did was matter-of-fact and had such a since of finality. He was smart and wanted people to know it.
“No, I guess not. But how strong am I then. Like, what can I do?”
“You should be able to lift a small car with difficulty.”
A car? Really? I’d never tried to do anything like that. Right now, I was regretting never looking deeper into my abilities. Maybe I could have been doing something all along. Helping people, I mean. Of course, lifting a car was small potatoes to the tanky types, but it was still nothing to sneeze at. But could I really lift a car? I was taking Cypher’s word for it just because he was a hero. The only thing he’d shown me so far is the ability to break into my house and stalk me.
“Shouldn’t we test that or some-”
“We don’t need to,” Cypher cut me off, “We need to expedite this as much as-”
“Damn it! I’m the one that’s getting sanctioned, I’m the one that’s being asked to volunteer my life. I don’t need you dragging me around like- like- like a stupid child.”
“Your sudden backbone is almost admirable, but we don’t have time. You have to be sanctioned in case the Gold Diggers come back for you and do worse than rip off some fingers.”
“Bullshit. They aren’t coming back, are they? Can you tell me that with a straight face? Not that I would know since you hide behind that mask. What’s really going one? Why are you pushing so hard to get this done?”
Cypher went quiet, but he didn’t turn away. He kept the dark void of his mask focused on me. “I need to use your foresight.”
“Why?” Getting answers out of Cypher was starting to feel more like pulling teeth by the second.
“I haven’t made any headway tracking down those behind the most recent attack. Your powers may help me get a lead.”
“So, you don’t really care about me being able to fight off the Gold Diggers if they come back?”
“Only in so much as it would allow you to remain a useful resource.”
“Figures,” I muttered. I was just being used. Cypher didn’t care about keeping me out of jail or making sure I could defend myself, he just cared about securing a tool. If I didn’t have my own reasons for getting sanctioned, I don’t think I could have held myself back from walking out right then.
“Can we continue?” Cypher asked, his mask still annoyingly not betraying anything.
I nodded, “What do I need to do?”
“Sprint around the perimeter of the room. Get up to full speed as quickly as you can.”
Right back to business. Did this guy ever relax? Animus had a sympathetic look on his face while Vindicator looked more ambivalent. James wouldn’t even make eye contact. How onboard was he with all of this? How much did Cypher tell him? I shook my head, I needed to focus to use my power.
As I started to pick up the pace and shift into a sprint, I felt the push and pull as the energy shell shifted around me. Like I did before I ran into the Gold Diggers, I started willing the energy to move proactively. The drag quickly vanished, and for a few steps, the energy moved perfectly in step with me. Then I started pushing it. My legs couldn’t keep up with the pace any more, so I let them relax. Right, left, right, left…
Worryingly, the wall to my right started getting closer fast as the room curved. I tried to turn slightly to the left but ended up moving my legs instead of the energy. My legs froze as the rapidly moving shell of energy pressed against them, and I slammed my face into the floor. Luckily, it didn’t hurt at all, like getting hit in the face with a lazily thrown pillow.
The lack of pain didn’t make it feel any less embarrassing though. Vindicator was resting an arm on Cypher’s shoulder and was almost doubled over laughing. The leader of the Regents looked like he was struggling to hold up the weight with Vindicator’s slightest movement throwing him around like a ragdoll. Meanwhile, Animus was laughing in his chair at me and his teammates.
Seeing them crack up was contagious. I couldn’t help but laugh, even if it was partly at my expense. It was nice to know that not all heroes had rods up their asses like Cypher seemed to. Still, I wanted to at least be able to run in a circle, even if it was just to show I wasn’t completely incompetent at using my powers. Before Cypher could tell me to move on, I scrambled to my feet, trying to control the energy more than just my muscles.
It felt more like flying off the ground than anything; there wasn’t any fatigue or exertion in my limbs, the only hard part was mentally visualizing how I wanted the energy to move. It was a bit janky for a bit as I launched into stride, and for the first few moments, I was almost parallel to the ground as I picked up speed.
I needed to right myself before I ended up sprawled out on the ground again. Simultaneously, I pulled back on my upper body and sped up my legs. Miraculously, my movement soon resembled normal runner’s form instead of a prolonged stumble. Still I had to match the curve of the room, and fast. Trying to make your brain tell your body to move without having it move was harder than it sounds.
Controlling the energy was like trying to use an arm that had fallen asleep. You could maybe move it, but there wasn’t any useful feedback. It was like learning to walk all over again. Thankfully, I managed to pull myself slightly away from the wall and maintained the slight turn.
Alright, I thought to myself, Time to pick up the pace. I started moving faster, picturing every step in my head. Faithfully, the energy rushed to match it. To a point. Eventually, the energy seemed to hit a limit. I almost tripped again when I expected to hit the ground only to realize my foot wasn’t there. Luckily, I managed to repeat what I had done to pick myself off the ground.
For a second, I seamed to float before I hit my rhythm again.
“Alright, that’s enough,” Cypher called from the middle of the room. He waved me over and I jogged to where he and Vindicator were still waiting. “Drop the energy projection,” he ordered.
I could swear I felt an eyeroll. “Are you going to question everything I say from now on?”
“No.” Great, now I could either play along like a good little soldier, or I would seem like an impudent child. “I just want to know why. Everything here is new, and I’m just trying to figure it out.”
I relaxed the metaphoric muscle and the energy flowed away from my face, and almost seemed to evaporate off my body.
“Not bad. Your heartrate is barely elevated from your baseline.” He must have sensed my impending question, because the hero quickly added, “Photoplethysmography, I can determine your heartbeat through small fluctuations in your appearance.”
“Okay, well, how fast did I go?”
“Forty-eight point two seven miles per hour once you got up to full sprint.”
“Well, that’s pretty good, isn’t it?”
“It’s certainly superhuman. Animus only clocks in at thirty-five,” Vindicator said.
“Cool, so what’s next on Cypher’s Sanctioning Bootcamp agenda?”
Suddenly, my vision flashed blue, and when it faded, I was suddenly gasping for air and sprawled out on my back.
I looked up to see Cypher standing over me, a shifting and swirling covering hiding my face in the reflection of his mask. “What the hell?” I gasped between breaths. “Sorry about that, hit you a little bit harder than I meant to,” Vindicator rumbled as he loomed into my field of view. “You hit me?” I asked, almost in a daze as he offered me a hand.
“It was my idea,” Cypher said as I accepted Vindicator’s help in getting me to my feet. “I saw the police report of you being able to stop a bullet and looked over footage of the attack where you managed to sidestep a shot from Hellequin.”
“So, you had Vindicator knock the wind out of me by punching me across the room?”
“It was more of a backhand,” Vindicator muttered.
Cypher nodded. “You managed to manifest your powers in fractions of a second when acting on instinct. On top of that, you withstood a hit that would shatter a normal person’s ribs.”
“Yeah, I’m bulletproof. Sometimes. I already knew that.”
The hero shook his head slightly. “Not entirely. A large enough round from a powerful enough gun could cause damage. I think range was the only thing saving you from Hellequin. That and your adrenaline giving your power a slight boost.”
Well, I guess not everything could be great news. “So, I guess I shouldn’t be getting in shootouts.”
“Not regularly, no…” Cypher said. I noticed an odd inflection in his voice. Before I could question it, I saw Cypher’s hand rapidly shoot up from his side. I didn’t even notice that he’d drawn his gun before my vision washed blue twice in rapid succession, but then I felt three heavy impacts to my chest. I staggered back, and another small blink of blue disoriented me more. Then another two punches to the gut finished off Cypher’s assault.
“What was that for?” I groaned. Even with the energy protecting me, I could feel the beginning of several bruises forming. I opened my right fist three crumpled bullets dropped to the ground, joining the five that were already on the ground.
“Your ESP isn’t consistent. And it isn’t based on potential fatality. I spread the shots around, and you triggered on normally non-lethal and lethal shots just the same. You shouldn’t rely on it to keep you alive.”
“Is ESP normally consistent?”
“Generally, yes. Yours is different.”
“Well, most of his powerset is odd,” James pitched in, walking over to join us. “He has low-level strength, speed, enhanced durability, and Type A Cognition? Four powers? That is rare.”
“But not unheard of,” Cypher retorted. “Especially if you consider how he could achieve it,” He continued, looking at me. “Your energy shell has to be manifested before you have access to the strength and speed, correct? And Cerf Tueur demonstrated you are vulnerable without the protection the energy provides.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I think so, I haven’t really tested it before today.”
“So, he’s a kinetic, right? Type B? C?”
“What do you mean ‘kinetic’?” I asked. “Like telekinetic? I don’t move things with my mind or anything like that.”
“It’s one of the official power designations Argus uses,” Cypher answered. “Kinetic means that you manipulate something with your mind. James is correct in labeling one of the aspects of your power as Type B Kinesis. You can control the energy mentally to some degree, correct?”
“Yeah, I focus on moving the energy and my body follows.”
“Well, that makes sense,” James said as he scribbled something down on the forms he was carrying on a clipboard.
“It does, but I don’t think that’s everything. I’ve been trying to pin down the source of the energy, but I can’t find where you’re gathering it from. There aren’t any temperature fluctuations or power shortages when you manifest the suit, so you aren’t likely gathering it from your surroundings. That usually means a metahuman is using internal energy reserves, but you aren’t emitting any energy fields that would suggest that either.”
“Is he a converter, then?” James asked. “Type C, turning matter to energy and back again?”
“Not likely. I think he’s a warper; pulling it from somewhere else.”
“Warper?” I asked.
“Metahumans with a warper classification bend the laws of physics, manipulating time or spacial dimensions. It’s rare, but it could explain where the energy comes from.”
“You think I can control time?” I asked, thinking it was crazy.
“Time, no. But you may be able to warp space to some extent, even if you don’t do it consciously.”
“So,” James began, trying to make sense of what Cypher was saying. “Nate gets the energy from… another dimension or something?”
Cypher nodded, but as soon as James suggested an alternate dimension, my mind went to the skeletal forest I saw in my dreams. It was there almost every night, sometimes for just a second, but sometimes it stayed for what felt like hours.
“What would an alternate dimension look like?” I asked.
“Almost anything really. Argus knows about a few that are relatively ‘close’ enough that some metahumans can bridge the gap. Genesis, though, has reported that there are thousands that he’s visited,” Cypher explained.
Genesis, one of the most powerful metahumans in history. A reality warper, Earth’s defender against trans-dimensional threats. Argus all but banned him from using his powers on Earth, and he had agreed. I couldn’t imagine being that powerful. He could do so much that even Argus was afraid of him. Granted, they were afraid of Cypher too, but for different reasons.
“Should I put that on his file then,” James asked Cypher, pen poised over the form.
“No, we can’t confirm it without some much more intensive tests. Cog and kinetic should work for now unless you start to manifest more powers as time goes on, Nate.”
“Alright, then I think I have everything I need. Except a name,” James said, looking at me.
“Uh, you know my name, James.”
“No, an alias. Your alias.”
“Oh.” My mind went completely blank. I’d never really thought about giving myself a superhero alias before. Well, that wasn’t completely true. I guess there had to have been some point when I was younger that I toyed around with the idea, even if the thought of using my powers was traumatizing. Still, nothing notable was coming to mind.
“I don’t really have anything,” I said, looking around in the hope that one of the other had any good ideas.
“Well, you have a little while to think about it. James can submit the file first thing in the morning,” Cypher said, turning to walk out of the training room.
James nodded. “Try and get some rest, you’ve had a hell of a night.”
“I agree, but first, I need you for one last thing,” Cypher called to me from the door, waiting for me to follow him.
“Alright,” I called back, but before I head to join Cypher, I looked back to James and stuck out my hand. “Thanks, James.”
“For what?” James asked, and odd look on his face. Guilt?
“I guess for just being a friend, and for being here, now.”
“You know I didn’t want it to work out this way.”
“I know,” I said, with a small smile. James sighed and shook my hand, returning the smile. “We can talk more later, better not keep Cypher waiting.”
“Right,” I muttered, as I turned and jogged over to where the masked hero was waiting. “What do you need?”
“Where are we going?” I asked as Cypher led me towards the elevator. “The Oculus.”
“The Oculus? What’s that, your high school metal band?”
When we walked into the elevator, Cypher pulled a rectangular key out of his pocket and inserted it into a slot at the bottom of the button panel. With barely a vibration, the elevator started moving down, rapidly. The floors rolled past, all the way down to the lowest floor listed on the panel, but the elevator kept moving, past the hangar, lower than I’d been yet. I was beginning to suspect the Oculus wasn’t the name of a metal band after all.